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Interview: Karen Mellanby

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Running a huge team of Mind Employees and services in the UK, Karen Mellanby is a keen advocate for ensuring anyone who needs it, can receive the best possible mental health support. As Director of Networks and Communities at Mind, Karen has done some incredible work such as the Our Time to Change campaign that ran for nearly a decade. Go Inspire UK spoke to her about what exactly her role entails...

Go Inspire: Can you explain what Mind does and about your role as Director of Networks and Communities?

Karen Mellanby: Mind is the leading mental health charity in England and Wales. We work to ensure everyone with a mental health problem gets support and respect. We provide information and services and campaign on the issues that impact negatively on people with mental health problems, whether it’s tackling stigma or ensuring adequate funding for services. My role is to work with our network of 109 local Mind organisations based throughout England and Wales, supporting our services to respond to the local needs in communities and be the best they can be, reaching as many people as possible to support better mental health through a range of services and programmes.

GI: Tell me about the moment you knew this is what you wanted to spend your time doing?

KM: When the position at Mind came up it ticked all the boxes for me in terms of my passion for mental health and my skills in working with networks of community organisations. I’m a strong believer in the power of people and communities to drive the change they want to see. Working together collaboratively under the Mind brand means we can be stronger together and a powerful force for change. But partnership working isn’t always easy. We’ve had to take time to build a shared vision, strong relationships and utilise the expertise and resources across our networks. But every time I visit a local Mind, see the work they are doing and hear from people the difference services have made to their lives, I feel both inspired and humbled.

GI: How would you describe your career? What would a normal day look like for you?

KM: I’ve worked in the Charity Sector for almost 30 years and in a variety of roles. During my career I’ve delivered services, developed fundraising bids, delivered training, managed multi-million-pound programmes of work, given media interviews, provided evidence to Parliamentary Committees, met with MPs, celebrities and even royalty. It’s honestly never boring. I feel very fortunate to have such a wonderful, enriching, and exciting career that has provided me with lots of opportunities to grow and develop. I don’t think I can honestly say what a normal day looks like for me. They are all so different and varied. But as a Director I’m now much more focused on big picture strategy, building and managing relationships externally and internally and leading a team of people to deliver impact for our beneficiaries.

GI: Is there a specific project at Mind that you are most proud of?

KM: It’s difficult to single out just one. I’m proud of the work we have done with the Sport sector, especially our four-year partnership with the English Football League (EFL) which ended in 2022 and saw us raise mental health awareness with millions of football fans across the country and deliver local projects to support people’s mental health to improve through physical activity. Our Time to Change campaign, which we managed alongside Rethink, ran for nearly a decade and we supported Time to Change champions in local communities to use their lived experience of mental health problems to tackle mental health stigma and change attitudes to mental health across society. That was a game changing campaign, I think. And we’ve also supported thousands of people to set up and access local mental health peer support services where they live.

GI: Can you tell us about your early career which led you to becoming the Director of Networks and Communities at Mind?

KM: One of my earliest jobs was as a home care worker. I then worked for a charity for people with learning difficulties. I discovered that I was comfortable and happy working with people, and especially people who can find themselves less valued in society or ignored and disadvantaged. That led to me studying a social work qualification and then an MA in Applied Social Studies. Since then, my career has been forged in charities, working in a variety of roles, on the frontline locally, before taking on more national, development and leadership roles. In my studies I specialised in mental health so the opportunity to work for Mind excited me enormously

GI: What are some of your proudest accomplishments at Mind or any other milestones in your career? How about outside of work? 

KM: When I started working for Mind in 2013 mental health was much less talked about in society and there was a lot of stigma surrounding it. I’m proud to have been part of a movement that has helped change that and bring mental health more in to the open. And I’m particularly proud of how we have worked together as a network of organisations to increase our income to reach more people through our services year on year. Throughout my career I’ve prioritised gaining practical experience alongside more formal education. I think my social work qualification was a key milestone in supporting me to move forward into a career where my personal and professional values aligned.

GI: You were also Deputy Chief Executive at Action for Advocacy, can you tell us more about it and about your role?

KM: When I trained as a Social Worker my student placements were in statutory social care services. They did amazing work, but I remember thinking that wasn’t for me. The system back then seemed at breaking point, workers were constrained and so often the voices, needs and rights of the people the system was meant to be working for were ignored. So, I became a health and social care advocate. I stood alongside people in need of, or using, health and social care services, to advocate and support them to make choices and for their voices to be heard. Most advocacy services were provided by local charities, including local Minds as it happens.

Action for Advocacy was established to support that network of advocacy providers with information, development support, training, and events, and we also did policy work to promote advocacy to funders and policy makers. As Deputy Chief Executive I oversaw all our policy, training and communications work.

GI: Do you have any inspirations or experiences that drives you in your line of work?

KM: People inspire me. Some people experience terrible hardship and disadvantage and that inspires and motivates me to make changes so that their voices can be heard, and they have the right to live a full life. Many people have amazing and inspiring stories to tell about their own lived experience and what they have overcome. If I have spent too long in front of the computer, I know I only must go to visit one of our local Mind services to be inspired by how they help bring people together and support real change in people’s lives through their work. I’m also incredibly hopeful and inspired by younger people. I was a Scout Leader for ten years and am a big champion of our work to support young people’s mental health. We have a Youth Voice Network who engage with Mind to help us develop our work and have met some amazing and talented future leaders.

GI: Are there any campaigns or work you are doing currently you would like to tell us about?

KM: Despite lots of positives around the mental health cause in recent years, it is now an incredibly challenging environment, and we know there is still a long way to go before we can say everyone with a mental health problem gets support and respect. We know that mental health is increasing and becoming more complex and yet the Cost-of-Living crisis is putting funding pressures on services. We know people experiencing poverty need support for their mental health and there remains enormous inequity of access, treatment, and support for people from racialised communities. Over the coming years we will be working hard to ensure services and support are accessible to all and reaching those that need our support the most. We will also be increasing our focus on supporting the mental health needs of young people through our work locally.

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